Sunday, March 15, 2009

Worth Listening To

A few years ago, Brent Cunningham, Managing Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, suggested that the reason why the media have such difficulty covering stories about working-class people well is that so few journalists come from the working class themselves. As he suggests, most journalists don’t know many working-class people and don’t understand them. Connie Schultz shows us what a difference understanding where people come from can make. Her weekly columns in the Cleveland Plain Dealer often focus on working people, and she helps her readers understand people who are and are not like themselves.

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I talked with Connie about her work, especially about the challenges of writing about real people’s lives. Good writing – and hers is so good that she won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns -- requires honesty. She shows us the struggle and pain of ordinary people, and she does so in ways that emphasize their dignity and strength. In our interview, I asked her to read from a column that I found especially moving, about a man who committed suicide after the plant where he’d worked for 40 years shut down. Stories like that invite empathy, but that’s not the only reason why Connie wants us to hear them. She’s an advocate as well as a storyteller. In a way, she uses other people’s stories to show us injustice but also to point toward change. That’s why she has to write with such care, to be sure that her interests and the interests of her readers don’t trump the concerns of the people she writes about.

She may do this so well in part because she does write about her own life, including her marriage to Senator Sherrod Brown. She has an especially public life; being a politician’s wife opens a woman to more than the usual scrutiny. She’s been on the receiving end of indiscriminate attacks on her character, the way she talks, even seemingly simple and personal things like keeping her own name.

Whatever the subject, whether writing about herself or challenging an audience of local residents to stand up for their own community, as she did when she visited YSU last month, Connie Schultz speaks clearly, humanly, and humanely. She’s worth listening to.

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